Pope Francis touches the casket of Pope Benedict XVI at the conclusion of his funeral Mass (CNS Photo/Vatican Media).

My oldest child was a baby when Pope Benedict XVI stepped down. He’s in middle school now, and I’m constantly trying to find a balance between shielding him from the news, which is so often overwhelming and terrible, and making him appropriately aware of world events.

“So, it looks like Pope Benedict is dying,” I told him, figuring he’d be hearing about it soon enough. “The pope is dying?” he asked, his interest ever-so-slightly piqued. “Not Pope Francis,” I clarified. “Pope Benedict. The old pope.” He took this in and went back to talking about basketball. A few hours later I would have the same exchange with his younger brother. “Not Francis, Benedict. The pope emeritus.” I tried to give them some idea of how unusual the situation was, to make them aware that “pope emeritus” was not, as they would say, “a thing” until quite recently. I told them how disorienting it was for adult Catholics, and especially those of us working in the “having opinions about the Catholic Church” sector, to learn that Benedict planned to resign. Can he even do that? What are we supposed to call him now? Some Catholic pundits had spent the final years of John Paul II’s pontificate insisting that the Vicar of Christ, however infirm, could not possibly abandon his post. And now here was his successor, a man who had been expected to follow faithfully in his former boss’s footsteps, charting a radically different course. Those who had convinced themselves that no other choice was possible had to reckon with the discovery that, actually, it was. Suddenly, the pope retiring was a thing.

It seems painfully naïve to talk about responsible leadership in a time of empty iconoclasm, when “understanding what a job involves and earnestly trying to do it” is out and “disruption” is in. But Pope Benedict really cared about the job he had to do, and in resigning he demonstrated that the responsible use of power sometimes requires a willingness to give it up. He gave us an example to follow: if you think your continued leadership is likely to do more harm than good, you can and you ought to step aside and let someone else lead.

Resigning meant trusting that the Church could encounter a new set of circumstances and just…figure it out.

The novelty of that situation led to a lot of smaller decisions about what Benedict should be called, what he should wear,  where he should live, and so on, right up to the final decisions about his funeral rites. Some of the answers to those questions were imprudent. But the struggle to discern a path forward was itself salutary: even in the Catholic Church, tradition isn’t the only available answer. Sometimes you have to try something new, see if it seems right, maybe change course if it fails. These are banalities in most places, but in Rome they are radical truths. Staying the course, dying in office, would have meant keeping the Church from having to do something new. But that didn’t make it the right choice. Resigning meant trusting that the Church could encounter a new set of circumstances and just…figure it out.

There were intimations, during Benedict’s emeritus period, that the former pope was less than delighted with the choices made by his successor. But whatever his preferences might have been, Benedict had greater faith in the guidance of the Holy Spirit than his most fervent admirers (and Francis’s most fervent detractors) have ever shown. He trusted that the Church would be all right in someone else’s hands. He was open to being surprised, to being, like St. Peter, led in his old age in a direction he might not have chosen. He and I would not have agreed about which were the greatest threats to the Church’s integrity and what sort of adjustments would keep the ship afloat. But he had faith in the Church’s ability to navigate, not just as an extension of his personal authority, but as a project greater than any of us.

The experience of figuring out what to do with a pope who stops being the pope was an experiment in encountering unexpected questions and searching for new answers. It was awkward. We didn’t get it all right. But it was a good warm-up. It turns out the fact that a thing has never been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done now. There are many more questions the Church doesn’t want to face. Searching for answers, embracing humility, and trying new things will be the only way forward.

None of this reflection was interesting to my kids, who were barely aware that Benedict existed. But it seems to me that they are growing up in a Church that is a bit more flexible and able to confront challenges, thanks to Pope Benedict. And that’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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Published in the February 2023 issue: View Contents
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